The men traveling with Orceus were so large in size that it seemed they would not be able to fit anywhere in the village. This proved to be right when Orceus attempted to have dinner in Aerin's sitting room and could not stand straight inside of it. Aerin had suggested that only he, Orceus, Ulfred, and I meet to make a decision so that we would not all have to gather together in one place but I did not want to do it this way. I wanted to see those men in the face and tell them what I was asking of them and why. In the end it was settled that we would meet at night, by the shore.
We gathered by the light of a fire and with the men sitting around me I decided it was time to tell them exactly what they came all this way to hear.
"I know I have no right to ask this of you but I feel I have no choice." I paused to look into their eyes. They all had fire in them, not from the flickering flames but inside of them; it was their courage shining through. "I know I've done very little to deserve anything from you. For many years I let myself be guided by the man who now usurps the throne and did nothing to stop him even when I knew I had the power. I am as much to blame for my misery as he is and although I do not expect your respect I would hope that you find it in yourselves to fight, not for me or in my name, but for the people of Aetheria. My being usurped was my fault but they should not suffer for it. I can not- I will not allow it."
"And if we say no?" asked Orceus from his seat, his voice rumbling in the silence amidst the sound of the crackling fire. I could tell Aerin and Ulfred wanted to confront him and even I felt a sudden hollowness inside me, as if all hope had left.
"If you say no then you are free to go. All I can ever do is ask."
"What will you do?" he asked again.
"I will do what is necessary to protect the people of Aetheria. If I have to do it alone then so be it." I could feel the strength returning to my voice. It was no longer fueled by my attempts at masking loneliness but from a desire to be heard. I wanted them to know that I would not give up, that I would fight for what was right. I felt the fire from their eyes inside myself and I knew that there was no going back for me. I would not hide one more minute in this forest. "I will fight for them, even if it means my death."
There was a long silence.
"Well, we do know why we are here Your Majesty," he spoke again, "but do you think we would have come all this way just to say no?"
I looked into his eyes and he looked back at me with the same flame I felt inside.
"We know exactly what happened in Aetheria. We know how it was ambushed and taken by force. If there is one thing we do not tolerate, it is that. For years your father made sure that his people lived free and in harmony. It is not for one man to come and destroy everything King Aldred fought for. You may feel you do not deserve our help because you have done nothing but you are mistaken. Your father never did anything for us but still we respect him, just as we do you. If we had wanted his protection or help we would have asked for it, or fought for it. We respect both of you because you left us in peace. You let us live life our way without trying to take over our lands. For that, we are here to make sure that you get yours back."
I could not speak. The feeling inside my heart was too much for words. I saw Ulfred place his hand on Orceus' shoulder, a look of relief and gratefulness showing as strong as I felt it. I looked into Aerin's eyes and saw a smile there but I could not recognize the expression he was now giving me, for I had never seen it before.
This time it was Ulfred who spoke. "We will form a plan of attack. As soon as we are ready we will part for Aetheria. For now, rest men and enjoy this night."
I walked away down the shore. The rushing water brushed me gently as it made its way towards the forest, never quite reaching it.
"I am very proud of you," came Aerin's voice from behind. That was the expression, pride.
"Why? I have not done anything yet," I said turning to look at him.
"You think that all men are measured by their actions?" he asked.
"Not always. Just look at yourself! Remember who you were before this? Do you not feel changed? You are not alone anymore Aelyn and we do not fight for you because you are queen; we fight for you because you are one of us now. You, like many of us, know the sacrifices that must be made for those you care about and are willing to make them, even if it means losing your life. That is what makes all the difference in the world and your greatness will not be in the fight you put up but in your decision to do it... and we will all love you for it."
"You are the only reason I am still here. The person I am right now would not have existed without you... and I will always love you for it."
He smiled warmly at me, bringing his lips down to mine. I let him give me small kisses, gently, warmly, lovingly.
"I love you," he whispered into my ear.